The knotty problem of starting a new school, or even a new school year, causes us all anxiety. The four tweens in our lives all started a new school last year. For we Mums, it’s all about the new kit list, the new school calendar, the new people at the school gates, the new drop-off and pick-up times which still need to fit around our old commitments, or maybe we’ve got new commitments ourselves, commensurate with moving to a new area, new beginnings all round. We’ve got knots in our stomach, we’re women, we all know that feeling, and those knots are making us less patient by the minute with our tween.
Imagine the scene. It’s 7pm, or thereabouts, and the night before the first day of the new school term at the new school. Nancy’s new school bag is packed. The full range of new pencils have been organised in colour order, the new fountain pen is reverently positioned in pride of place in the zip compartment in the inside pocket of the secret layer in the new pencil case and all is ready for the first day.
All is ready. Except, that is, for Nancy. She is hopping in one sparkly turquoise flip-flop around the kitchen on the pretext that she is looking for her toothbrush, which she clearly isn’t going to find inside the fridge that she has now opened, or on the back of the fly that she appears to be determined to swat with a well-aimed fling of her spare flip-flop, which lands perilously near the mantelpiece, and is prodded hopefully by her spare big toe, which results in landing hard on her bottom on the footstool.
Nancy is driving me nuts. I have been steering a course towards a warm bath, a winning bedtime story and an early night for her since I got up this morning. We were on track until half an hour ago, when Nancy had raced upstairs to prove that she could get to the bathroom before I had pricked my baking potatoes, then had got out all her baby bath toys, screeched into the water whistles and written ‘smelly rotten bum bum’ in soap suds on the bathroom mirror. Heroically, I held onto my external calm and asked her again to do her teeth, and now she is making a fuss about her bumped bottom and trying to look at it whilst once more on one leg and I am not even going to be pretending to be externally calm for much longer:
IT’S A NEW SCHOOL!
I want to sit her down and lecture her gently but firmly on the importance of first impressions, on doing her best in her first lessons, of saying the right thing to the right people, of smiling, making eye contact, playing alongside, watching out for cues… all this first day wisdom I want to impart to her, but it is in danger of remaining clenched between my teeth as I clamp down on my rising temper and just get her into bed.
That’s what I want to do.
But what does Nancy want me to do? What does she really want from me? Need from me? I’m her Mum, I would give her the world if I could but the reality is that she neither needs nor wants it. I would give her the world because it would make me feel good to have given it to her. On this night before the first day, what Nancy wants and needs looks very different to the world in her hand, or even the wise words I’m so keen to offer; and it might also be something that I find harder to give.
Firstly, Nancy wants me to notice her. I notice her hyperactivity, that she is being very silly, loud, clumsy, busy – and a bell rings in my head. These adjectives are traits of flight. In the freeze, flight or fight model of responses to perceived danger, Nancy is showing me that she is scared.
You can read more about freeze, fight and flight here: http://www.innerworldwork.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Primary-School-Cheat-Sheet.jpg
And watch this explanation with your tween, here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=FfSbWc3O_5M
Of course she’s scared. Aren’t we all, the night before a new start. But I hadn’t realised she was scared, because she had talked confidently about the new play equipment on offer, and about a girl in her class whom she already knows, and about her new fountain pen. She talked a lot about her new fountain pen. Talking a lot about something other than the real subject focus can be another sign of anxiety.
I’m scared too, if I’m honest. I’m scared that Nancy will talk too much and say the wrong thing, which could be anything from a list of obscure sea life creatures to how often I fart in bed, her tongue knows no bounds when she is nervous. I’m scared that she won’t fit in. That, by association, I won’t fit in. I’m scared that someone will be mean to her, that she will be standing alone in the crowded lunch queue, that she will have forgotten where to go when she needs the loo and won’t want to ask. I want to protect her. But I’m going about it the wrong way. The more anxious I am, the more anxious she will become. The more I give according to my need, the less love I show her. I need to wise up, and give her what she needs, not what I want to give.
I notice Nancy’s traits of flight, so I need to give her some grounding strategies. Repetition of a familiar action is a good one, so I ask her to fold up all the bathroom towels, as small as she can make them. Why? Because I’m going to sort them out later, I improvise, and it is enough, as I join her in the task and work alongside her, and we press down hard on each fold, making it into a game, squeezing out the mud pies, and I know that using weight is also a grounding strategy. Can we do some more towels, asks Nancy, as we reach the bottom of the pile, so I empty another drawer, and I recognise that the strategy is working, and I feel myself getting calmer too, which in turn calms Nancy further, and we are good together. I’m not laying the world at her feet, just a towel, but it is enough.
It’s not about folding towels, not really. It’s about noticing where our children are, and what they need.
In the coming week, I want to read more about recognising freeze/flight/fight behaviours. I want to be ready for her, next time Nancy is being flighty, or distracted, or demanding. What do I learn about her from the behaviour I notice? At the end of her first day, I’m going to skip the twenty questions. I want to make time to have a hot chocolate with her and let her talk, or let her fiddle, or let her ditch me for the television, or hop about in her flip flop. I want to spend some time alongside her. I want to notice her, and, later, when she is in bed, to have a think about where she is, and what she needs.